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Junkanooo and Comus

Errol Laborde

Junkanoo is a delightfully Bahamian celebration, akin to, but not exactly like, our Mardi Gras Indians. Locals belonging to various groups dance through the streets on the day after Christmas and then again on New Years Day, wearing brightly colored costumes.

I have a Junkanoo headpiece thanks to Selreta Gaskins. She is a delightful islander who, along with her husband Michael, once hosted us for lunch as part of the island’s People to People program. On the menu at the suburban-style home was a grand mixture of native foods: chicken, fish, rice and beans and a drink of coconut and gin. Michael once worked for the local office of Pan Am Airlines and at a resort on Paradise Island. Selreta is a retired government worker whose jobs included working in the nation’s passport office. While we ate, both talked about the importance of tourism and what it is to be a native Bahamian. One reason the locals smile is that they pay no income taxes and only a small property tax. The islands are financed instead largely by the riches of an import tax. As for tourism, Selreta remembered an old Bahamian expression, “be sure you get sand in your shoes – that means you will come back.” The couple represents a marriage of ancestries from two different Bahamian islands, so island hopping has always been a part of their lives. Asked to name one of his favorite islands, Michael, the former airline employee answered, “Scotland.”

This, our annual travel issue, reminds me of islands, including the Bahamas, which are technically not in the Caribbean but in the Atlantic, yet rich in the Caribbean culture.

Ask a Bahamian about the roots of Junkanoo and they’ll say it traces back to Africa. There is probably some truth to that, but I have another theory. The idea of masquerading and promenading during the Christmas season, particularly New Year’s Day, was also prominent among the Mummers in early Philadelphia as far back as the 1600s, especially among Swedish immigrants.

In my own studies of the New Orleans Carnival’s evolution I’m convinced there’s a Mummers influence, certainly in the formation of the Mobile Mardi Gras, which influenced the formation of the Mistick Krewe of Comus in New Orleans, which influenced all else that would follow. (The roots of the Mobile Carnival trace to a New Year’s Day masquerade parade, the Cowbellians, founded by a native of Philadelphia.) As ships from the American East coast reached the nearby Atlantic islands methods of celebration arrived, too. Thus it’s possible that the Junkanoo in the Bahamas and Comus have common ancestry.

Once the traditions reached their respective islands, the Bahamas and the Isle d’Orleans, they would be shaped by native cultures and take on a style of their own.
Admittedly in New Orleans it’s difficult to get sand in your shoes as an assurance of returning, but maybe beads around your neck work just as well.

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